A June 4 article on former National Spelling Bee contestant Ashley White misstated the name of the newspaper that sponsors the District's citywide spelling contest. It is the Informer, not the Inquirer. (Published 06/05/04).
In the ballroom of Washington's Grand Hyatt Hotel, hundreds of children sat uneasily Wednesday afternoon with huge numbered signs hanging around their necks. One by one, under the glare of television lights and the gaze of tense parents, they approached the microphone and began to spell, letters spilling from their lips and arranging themselves into the words they have spent countless hours memorizing: lenitive, equipollent, polemoscope, verbigeration.
Across the Anacostia River, in her sparsely furnished apartment, a contestant from a previous Scripps National Spelling Bee -- 18-year-old Ashley White -- arrived home from her job as a salesclerk, having just picked up her 10-month-old daughter from day care. White was tired, the baby fussy. Out their window, buses growled by on Minnesota Avenue SE.
Five years after winning the D.C. bee and surviving several rounds of the national finals, White was warming pureed peas and remembering the achievement that won her a featured spot in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Spellbound."
"I would not have imagined that my life would be like this," she said softly.
But in part because of the bee, "like this" is a lot better than it used to be.
Last year, Pam Jones, a nonprofit marketing consultant who saw the movie and wanted to do something for this bright, ambitious girl from a poor family, found White staying with a series of relatives and friends shortly after the baby's birth and rallied other viewers to her cause. While they contributed money for diapers and food, Jones coached her through an application to Howard University.
With that boost, White again marshaled the skills that got her to the bee -- "I was always a go-getter," she said. She found subsidized day care for her daughter, started classes at Howard in January, moved to a shelter for homeless teenagers and then rented an apartment in a two-year transitional program for single mothers. Between semesters, she is working full time in a clothing store.
Though it isn't what she imagined when she was a 13-year-old Hine Middle School speller with a photographic memory and dreams of being an obstetrician, she is less a stranger to herself and the girl she was. "I'll have a job that pays well and I will love my profession and I'll have a house, and whenever my mother or family member needs me, I'll be there for them," she tells an interviewer in the movie, before the finals.
Ten million children competed in spelling competitions across the country this year. This week, a record 265 finalists and their families descended on the Hyatt for the three-day Scripps National Spelling Bee, which ended yesterday with the crowning of the national champion. David Tidmarsh, 14, an eighth-grader from South Bend, Ind., won when he spelled "autochthonous," an adjective used to describe aboriginal flora or fauna.
Organizers attribute the bee's soaring popularity in part to "Spellbound," which was released last year. The documentary followed eight young contestants as they made their way to the 1999 finals -- among them Ashley White, who won the citywide competition that year by spelling "plaque." The Inquirer, a weekly newspaper that sponsors the D.C. bee, recommended her to the moviemakers, and producer Sean Welch said she impressed his crew immediately.
"She was a girl who did not have the same opportunities or same resources as some of the other kids who compete," he said. "Yet it was undaunting to her. She continued undeterred. She realized that by applying herself to the monumental task of spelling, it would not only help her in the immediate competition but . . . throughout her life."
Ashley, whose intellectual hunger caught her teachers' eyes early, spent four years aiming at the city title, studying weekends and after school and carrying the 4,000-word official bee spelling booklet wherever she went. The movie follows her to the third round of the national finals, where she was knocked out by "ecclesiastical," competing against some kids whose parents could afford to hire them spelling coaches and language tutors.
Jones, 54, saw "Spellbound" at a Dupont Circle theater and was taken with her. "There was something about her that said, 'I've got a lot of odds against me, but I'm going to overcome them,' " Jones recalled. She said she got to wondering where Ashley was in her life and whether she had been able to move toward her goals.
"My original thought was that she at least needed mentors, women in D.C. who are doing things with their lives," Jones said. But when she finally met the girl she'd seen on the screen, the autumn after her graduation from the School Without Walls, much more than that was needed.
Like her grandmother, mother and several aunts and cousins before her, White was a teenage mother. And despite her love for her daughter, Dashayla, then about 2 months old, she was deeply disappointed in herself.
"I was always someone who wanted to be different -- who wanted to work harder, who wanted to achieve more, who wanted to succeed," she said. Instead, "I was basically repeating my family history of teenaged pregnancy. I felt like a failure because everyone had such high expectations for me and thought that I would be the one who would break the cycle."
She gave up on her college plans. She had moved out of her mother's apartment and was ricocheting among temporary homes with the baby when the movie was released. As it turned out, Jones was not the only viewer who began contacting Welch, asking how they could help the least privileged of the movie's young stars.
In addition to paying for her college application, Welch set up a charitable foundation to aid her and other "Spellbound" contestants who needed help paying for college. Via e-mail, Jones and other supporters organized other forms of help.
Inspired by their efforts, White began to rally. She watched "Spellbound" again and was struck, she said, by the determined girl she had been. "I was strong. I had a lot of self-confidence. I was hungry for education and to be victorious," she said. "From that instant, I changed. . . . I realized that the me being discouraged -- that wasn't me."
She took six courses at Howard last semester and made the dean's list with a 3.8 average -- studying for finals in the homeless shelter while caring for Dashayla and waging a telephone campaign to find housing. With a few pieces of furniture donated by SOME (So Others Might Eat), White moved into her one-bedroom apartment in Southeast last week.
She has already assumed $6,000 in student loans and expects to have tens of thousands of dollars in debt before she graduates -- which she fully intends to do despite formidable odds. According to a 1996 study, 1.5 percent of teenage mothers receive their college degrees by the time they are 30.
"In order to achieve something, you have to have the commitment. You have to say, 'I'm going to take the time and focus on this one thing and I'm going to get something out of it,' " she said.
As White was returning from work yesterday and collecting Dashayla, a dramatic duel was being waged at the Grand Hyatt between David Tidmarsh and 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga of Denver, who remained in the hunt despite fainting at the microphone in an earlier round, then scrambling back to his feet to spell "alopecoid" (meaning of or like a fox).
Akshay was finally eliminated when he misspelled "schwarmerei," meaning excessive enthusiasm. David then correctly spelled "autochthonous" and burst into tears when the bee director signaled that he was correct.
In interviews after his victory, David said he had studied up to four hours on weekdays and six hours on weekends and said he had watched "Spellbound" at least 10 times.
Was this bee "as good as Hollywood can make it?" someone asked.
"It's even better," David said.